• Daniel Yim

Kate High: "I Don't Mind Death, It's the Wiggly Things That Bother Me."

If I were a marine mammal and died under mysterious circumstances, Kate High would be the first person I’d want on the scene. Unafraid of death or getting her hands dirty, Kate is one of the most driven scientists I have ever met. Unlike most students entering graduate school Kate knew that she wanted to be in the natural sciences from the start, and I truly mean the very start.

Her history with marine biology begins nearly from her birth. With a mother who had a career in marine biology and an older brother just as equally obsessed with wildlife, it is no wonder that some of Kate’s earliest memories are of restoration and conservation projects. From hatching quail chicks with the Junior Naturalists to tidepooling with her family, environmentalism has been ever-present in her life in all manner of ways. For many early career scientists connecting to the scientific world is the difficult part, but not for Kate. For her, the difficult part came from choosing which field to dive into. Initially, she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and study invertebrates, particularly nudibranchs (which she happened to have a plushie of on hand during our interview). However, her interests shifted during her undergraduate career.

Kate entered San Jose State University with the goal of having a different internship every summer in order to gain experience in a multitude of fields. It’s not an uncommon goal, but to date Kate is the only one I’ve met who has actually accomplished that goal. Beginning with studying snowy plovers in the Bay area to working at Friday Harbor Marine Laboratory in Washington State with shorebirds to even a short stint in biotech, Kate tried a whole slew of natural science fields, and slowly her idea of what career she wanted to have began to apparate. It had to involve fieldwork. Kate relishes being outdoors far too much to relinquish that in her career. Unfortunately, that was interrupted when she fell ill after her sophomore year of undergrad.

It was an unidentified neurological medical condition that was severe enough the doctors advised Kate to drop out of school and re-enroll later. However, after much deliberation, she decided that she would continue school and pursue her dream of being a marine biologist rather than wait indefinitely. It was a difficult choice, some professors weren’t understanding of her condition, and now the amount of fieldwork that she had enjoyed so much was limited. Even someone as determined as Kate gets shaken at the change from “when” to “if.”

For sometime there was the question of whether what she wanted was even possible, as her condition undercut her energy for fieldwork and made school more difficult for her. This came to a head in her final internship at the Azores. Although she had to pace herself and frequently retire early, she found that doing fieldwork was possible, which rekindled her desire to earn a master’s degree in graduate school to pursue a career in marine biology. Going into her senior year of undergrad renewed, Kate took courses at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and found her calling: marine mammal autopsy.

Now many, many aspiring marine biologists are drawn to the field by those classic marine megafauna, but few are drawn to their cadavers. Moss Landing is home to a high amount of marine mammal strandings, meaning that dead or dying marine mammals wash up on the shoreline frequently.

“Why did you die?” This was the question Kate posed to me, as if I were one of her subjects. It was the hook that enticed her into marine mammal necropsies. Stranding can happen from natural causes such as disease and old age, but some are from human sources or environmental factors exacerbated by humans. Necropsies are one of the few ways that we can determine the cause of death, but retrieving samples is difficult as it relies on citizen scientists reporting strandings and arriving on the scene before decay masks why the animal died. Due to this precarious situation, stranding networks became a handy tool for the morbidly obsessed marine mammalogist. Stranding networks are organizations of staff and volunteers that respond to incidents of marine mammals washing ashore, alive or dead. They cover every inch of the US coast and greatly contribute to marine mammal research. It was with the Moss Landing stranding network where Kate got her first glimpse into the world of marine mammal stranding networks.

There is something about holding a whale’s eye, or to quote Kate, “the sheer amount of intestines” that she enjoys. Death doesn’t bother Kate, but she admits that the sight of human blood would make her faint. It was through this experience and her subsequent work with California Academy of Sciences’s stranding network that she came about the idea for her current research: do Cal Academy’s stranding data contain spatial or temporal patterns that might explain the frequency of such incidents?

Typically, when scientists examine stranding data they look for disease outbreaks rather than overarching environmental factors, that Kate is concerned about. This idea came to her about a year before she began searching for an advisor for graduate school. She had understandable concerns about how her mentors would handle her condition. Fortunately, she found Dr. Ellen Hines and the RIPTIDES program who was accepting of her condition and eager to support her project.

Now, Kate is a member of the third cohort of San Francisco State University’s RIPTIDES graduate program and the Geography and Marine Spatial Ecology Lab. Her work analyzing Cal Academy’s stranding network data for patterns within the stranding incidents could bring to light long-overlooked trends in marine mammal strandings. She hopes that her findings will be invaluable not just to Cal-Academy’s stranding network, but to every stranding network. Although much research has been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kate is still working hard parsing out these patterns.

During our interview, I had to ask the most dreaded question for graduate students: what do you plan to do after graduating? After a great deal of hemming and hawing, Kate admitted to not being sure what she’d like for the future, but she was certain of one thing, it has to involve fieldwork.


Kate and examples of her work can be found here.

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